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Burning Questions: To Read Or Not To Read

Michael C. here to tackle a major philosophical issue. No poking fun at Ghost Rider this week. There are some questions a movie lover ponders for a lifetime. The big questions like where to sit in the theater (close enough to fill my field of vision but not so close I crane my neck) or Godfather Part I or Part II (Part I. You Part II people can have at me in the comments)

This week I thought I’d dive into one such big question the imminent release of Hunger Games has me contemplating. Is it better to read the book first or watch the movie?

For the purposes of this discussion let us assume that both book and movie are excellent. When one is clearly superior then the call is obvious. Better version first. Read I, Robot, The Road, Breakfast of Champions. Watch Jaws, Sideways, Wonder Boys. The lesser version can be an interesting bonus at best, a horrible afterthought at worst.

The real dilemma is when both versions promise to be excellent and one experience will inevitably compromises the purity of the other. I’ll state right up front that when put to it I’m a movie first guy. I watched the entirety of the Lord of the Rings not knowing if Frodo would make it back alive (I had read The Hobbit, which made for an ideal balance of acquainting myself with the world and preserving suspense. I recommend it)

So in the interest of fairness let me play Devil’s Advocate and make the case for book first to see if I can shake my position.

Books provide context

Book to film adaptations inevitably lop off huge chunks of backstory on the trip to the screen. When entire chapters of family history are reduced to a five seconds of Lisbeth Salander scrolling through pics on a laptop, having read the book becomes invaluable.

My response:  A movie should stand on its own. “That was explained in the novel” is not a legitimate defense as far as I’m concerned. Also... sometimes lost is the correct place to be. I can’t deny being a Le Carre expert would have saved me a lot of confusion during Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but then confusion was largely the point, wasn’t it?  

Furthermore, familiarity with the original story makes one hyper-aware of shortcuts and omissions, a problem that doesn’t occur in the opposite direction. I enjoyed the new Pride and Prejudice quite a bit but a die-hard Austen fanatic friend of mine emerged from the theater ready to beat Joe Wright to death with a copy of Emma, so thoroughly had he butchered her beloved story.

You sacrifice suspense

No way around it. Unless the film is a wildly loose adaptation, the book is going to hold precious few surprises.

My response: For some reason this doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should.  I have a stronger memory of the great movie shocks of my life than I do of the great literary ones, so I tend to guard them more jealously. Maybe it is because the experience of reading a great book is so immersive that the pleasure of the twists often blends into the power of the novel as whole. In any case, I was riveted by McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men and Burgess’s Clockwork Orange despite having seen the two faithfully adapted films first, to name just two examples.

Your Imagination Gets Colonized

Seeing the film allows someone else first crack at interpreting a story and there is no going back. Can’t I have my own version of The Shining before I let Jack Nicholson take over the joint? Plus, there’s no guarantee the film delivers and then you’re stuck with repeated visions of Malin Ackerman while you are trying to enjoy Watchmen.

My response: This, to me, is the most compelling case for reading the book first. I defy anybody to read To Kill a Mockingbird without picturing Gregory Peck or Maltese Falcon without Peter Lorre.

Still, if the movie works, this tends to happen regardless of which came first. James Ellroy has said that he can’t help but picture Pearce and Crowe in LA Confidential and he created the characters from scratch. And I think we can more easily accept a book doesn’t match our preconceptions than we can a movie that substantially alters a character we already felt like we knew. The book, after all, cannot be held responsible for betraying our expectations.

What say you?
Is there some cost to my Movie First philosophy that I’m overlooking? Let me know in the comments. You can follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm or read his blog Serious Film. Previous Burning Questions...

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Reader Comments (25)

Ugh, I've been struggling with this particular issue about The Hunger Games too! It's really stressing me out actually. I hear the book is great, but I wanna go into the movie fresh. At the same time, I'm unable to read books after I've already seen the film.

March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

If I'm going to read the book I have to before I see the film. I can watch a 2 hour movie knowing how it's going to end, I cannot spend a week reading a book knowing how it's going to end. And you is kray, Godfather Pt. II is way better.

March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNIck

I read these books in a week, they're so good I couldn't put them down. Even knowing what is going to happen I am still dying to see how it translates to the screen. I think that's one of the great joys/scares of watching an adapted movie. It can either be really good or really bad.

March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTerence

I find it really difficult to read the book after I see a film, basically because of the same reason that Nick pointed out. That Dragon Tattoo book on my shelf looks so daunting now that I know what's gonna happen.
Though, to use another one of your examples, I really enjoyed Clockwork Orange as a book after seeing the film multiple times. It depend on the book too, I guess. How long it is and if it's generally the type of thing I'm into. Say like, Jane Eyre, there's probably no way I would read it if I'd seen the two adaptations I've seen beforehand.

March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

I only read the book first if I think I'll get more out of it. That's a purely subjective and wildly unreliable system, but there it goes - and what it generally means is that if a serious literary work is being adapted to the screen, I try to read it first. If it's some pot boiler or bit of popular fiction, I'm fine just watching the movie. So, for example, I made sure to read The Road, Revolutionary Road, and Atonement - to cite some recent famous adaptations - before the movies came out. But I didn't bother reading the Harry Potter books beyond the third one, and won't be reading the Hunger Games books, and will likely never read the Dragon Tattoo books either.

Also, The Godfather all the way.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I'm on the team of 'reading the books after watching the movie adaptation enriches the experience.' I've had nightmare scenarios where I've read the books before watching the movie and the latter never lives up to the standards of the former. E.g. A Single Man and Precious, although I've heard bad things about Precious in the first place anyway so...

Another reason I read the books after is because, as much as I fear like seeming like a Luddite by admitting this, reading takes time. I don't want to make a big statement without crunching the numbers but a hindrance to adapted source materials is that people - not just me - will put off reading the books and end up not seeing the movie. I know that the returns for Harry Potter, Twilight and Gone with the Wind contradict what I'm saying, but then whoever powers that be had three or four years of time between those books and movies for audiences to catch up (Hunger Games the book came out at 2008, it's now 2012). But I know a few people who, again, put off reading Dragon Tattoo and that's why, despite its $100M and Oscar win, just peaked at #2 and an unknown number of people on the internet are like 'HA-ha, TGWTDT failed.' There are risks. I'm not saying that adapted materials are definite losers although a) There are probably many examples that have fallen off people's radars, Golden Compass and b) studios or production companies could earn MORE either if they strike at the right time OR if they have a high concept original idea instead.

Also, I'm probably one of three people who love To Kill a Mockingbird the book and HATED the movie.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

I had this dilemma with The Help. Eventually, I decided to read the book first and was so glad I did. I felt so much more invested not knowing what was going to happen. The adaptation was great, in my opinion. Aibileen, Skeeter, Minny, Hilly, and, my favourite, Celia, were either just as I imagined them, or really good, in a different way.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I think one should always experience the source material first. Why would someone make a movie from a terrible book? I'm sure it happens, but not usually. So it's a pretty safe bet that the book will be decent. The same cannot be said for the movie.

Personally, I never have a problem separating the two. I love John Irving and The Cider House Rules is one of my favorite books, and when they made the movie they cut out the best character, Melody/Melony, the lesbian electrician, but I didn't mind. I understood the decision and I enjoyed the film on it's own. I feel terrible for those who never read Atonement, or for those who miss out on Life of Pi. Those are phenomenal works of fiction.

I think as long as you're not reading the book so you can position yourself as the cool hater who get's to say after the move, "Well, the book was better," then I think you should always read the book first.

Personally, as soon as I find out what movie Kate Winslet is doing next, I buy the book. Looking forward to The Potato Peel Pie Society and Labor Day.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff


You will not regret it.

I saw We Need to Talk About Kevin and am now reading the book, really regretting it because the book is so much better, but I can't seem to get into it BECAUSE I know what's going to happen

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermorganisaqt

Really interesting question. Personally I always read the book first. I don't expect movies to be literal adaptations - actually I prefer that they take creative license rather than give the audience a "staged reading" of the book - but I'm much more invested in the characters after reading their story arcs, and can project more significance on small details of an actor/actress's performance after knowing their back story.

As for ruining the suspense, I remember several moments during the LOTR trilogy when it deviated from the source material enough that I had no idea what was going to happen next. Lots of really excellent books rely on character-driven narratives in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion and the fascination lies with how they get there. Movies are even better at giving us that thrill of the journey, since they have so much more control over the imagery, sound, and pacing of the story.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

I would most often read the book first, purely because I get a lot of enjoyment in seeing how a filmmaker has adapted another work of art, and what they've done with someone's intellectual property. This is especially the case when the filmmaker has managed something very different, but nonetheless interesting, with the work, such as was the case with We Need To Talk About Kevin, The Road or (to my mind the most perfect book-to-film adaptation of the last twenty years) The Virgin Suicides. It also helps me, sometimes, to understand what an actor is trying to do, such as Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road. That inner/outer struggle of April was so perfectly performed that the film's decision to effectively blurt out all the novel's themes through Michael Shannon's character infuriated me endlessly.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Another movie that I'd say is way better than the book is Fight Club. I'd say, that's mostly because Fight Club wasn't much of a BOOK to begin with. The insanely sparse minimalism just does nothing for me in book form but was a great blueprint for a tightly constructed film.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I read The Hunger Games series very recently, and I agree that it SHOULD be read. While I'm looking forward to the film version, I'm slightly concerned about the adaptation. For me, the greatness of the books, what set them apart, was Katniss' narration. If that is not included in the film (which something tells me that it won't be) a lot of the best parts of the story could be lost. The book series is very rich, and deserves more than a watered-down version, so we'll just have to wait and see.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

Read 'The Hunger Games' first. Ia m sure they will different from each other, but the series is so worth it to read in one sitting.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

I think there's no reason not to read The Hunger Games before seeing the film. It's a first person novel trapped in the lead's psyche. Collins does a few lines of exposition to jump through what will surely be big scenes in the movie to focus on what will be subtext in the film. A few of the scenes might be better left unspoiled for maximum impact, but as a whole, reading the book probably won't ruin the film experience. The first book is very well done and can easily stand on its own merits without the rest of the trilogy, let alone a film adaptation.

I'm on team "adaptations should stand on their own." I should not need to know the book inside and out to understand the film. If the film needs the book to make sense, the film has failed to tell the story correctly.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I think it comes down to whether you prefer books or films. I like to read the book first, but that's because, as much as I love movies, books hold a very special place in my heart and I will never not love reading. Seriously, when I was young I even enjoyed reading those tie-in novelizations of movies. I will nearly always see a film based on a book I like, but I'll rarely go back and read the book of a film I liked.

There are some cases where I've seen the film version first, though, and it's been a mixed bag. I saw To Kill A Mockingbird before I read it, and I love both film and book equally. I saw Atonement before I read it, and I really wish I had done the opposite - not because the film was bad, but because the book would have had more power not knowing the ending.

I think because you invest more into reading a book than you do a film, if a film adaptation sounds like something up your alley, read the book first. You're much likely to get more out of it. If not, see the film first, and if you love it, then read the book if you want.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I'm a "book first" guy, and I've annoyed quite a few people with my "that's not how it was in the book!" rants at the movies. I've found that a 2-hr. movie doesn't cut it for me anymore. I need a more immersive experience. It's also why I'm much more of a television fan. Season after season's worth of content is right up my ally. It's funny, b/c this past year I read "The Help," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." Most seem to think that these were solid adaptations to film (not taking about the film quality, just plot details), while I was appalled at some of the changes that were made to the film. Extracting exposition is one thing, but radical plot changes that are boneheaded and don't serve any genuine purpose really bother me. It might have made my experience with "TGWTDT" much better than what it was (they really mangled the ending). So I guess what I'm saying is if you can get over not being surprised at the theater with content and are okay with changes, deletions, and insertions, I'd stick to the book first. It'll probably be better than the film will be on average.

And I'm not touching "The Hunger Games" with a ten-foot pole. Book or film. Same for "Twilight" and "Harry Potter" (however many of them there are).

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGerry

I think that the suspense of reading the book is a really important factor in the way that it is organized. If you already know what is coming, your experience as a reader will not be nearly as exciting. I know you already basically spelled that out in your post, but it is such a major part of the book that it needs to be stressed. For the most part, it is a quick and INCREDIBLY enjoyable read that I highly recommend. GO READ IT NOW. Every second you spend not doing so is wasted...

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertom

I am movie then book. People who book then movie seem more likely to be disappointed than those who do the reverse.
I was going to read Shantaram until I saw there was a movie planned and I thought I would wait. Now the movie seems to have disappeared, I am considering reading the book but I am not sure if I should as the movie might happen.
If I really like a movie I will then read the book to learn more. I don't mind knowing how a book ends.I tend to skip to the last pages to see what happens anyway.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVaus

I'm a book-first person. I usually end up reading between ten and twelve books each year that I know are going to be adapted. But then, I don't have a problem separating the book and the film. I'm fine with changes being made during the adaptation process as long as they work for the film and still capture the spirit of the book.

Unlike Michael's friend, I absolutely adored Joe Wright's version of Pride and Prejudice, and I'm a huge fan of the book. Yes, it's very different from the book, but it's just such a beautiful piece of work on its own, and I don't feel in any way that it was a violation of the spirit of the book.

Really, I love comparing books and movies. I don't think I've ever felt like I've somehow overlooked a movie's positive aspects because I read the book.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz N.

I usually like reading the book before seeing the movie. I personally love to have all the specific context in my head and ready to go once I sit down to watch the adaptation.

For example, I felt I was able to enjoy "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" much more than if I had not read the novel. Knowing the story very well gave me the chance to focus on the acting, and the aural and visual qualities of the film instead of trying to wrap my brain around everything that was going on. It also happens that I'm a Le Carré fan as well.

I've also found out that most of the time I don't have major issues with the adaptations. "Atonement" and "Dangerous Liaisons" are two very good books and two very good movies in their own right, for example.

Or it can also happen that a bad cinematic adaptation might put you off reading an excellent novel. For example, if I had not read the book before seeing "The Lovely Bones"I probably wouldn't have had any interest in reading it after since they butchered and mishandled the adaptation in every possible way.

One thing I can say for certain is that I'm such a Sherlock Holmes literary purist that I think I will never be able to fully enjoy any cinematic or TV adaptation of the character. I even have issues with the (overall pretty good) BBC series!

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmspy

I rarely read a book after the seeing the film. It has to be book first, film second. Thanks to The Hunger Games film release I know there is a book, and I;ve heard very good things, but I think the film is going to arrive before I have chance to read the book so I doubt I'll ever read the source novel.

That said, many of Stephen King's books I've read after seeing the films - It, The Shining, Misery, Carrie etc. and have thoroughly enjoyed them.

March 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan

I think that if they only reason you're going to read the book is because a movie is almost out, then you don't really like books all that much.

March 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralex bbats

alex bbats--Not true in the slightest. Sure, I've never heard of some books before I heard about their adaptations, but I am immensely glad that I read them, along with the other thirty or so books I read each year for pleasure and the thirty or so that I read for work.

That's likes saying if you only read a book after getting a recommendation from your sister (as opposed to finding out about the book yourself), then you don't really like books all that much. It doesn't matter at all what convinced you to read the book. The point is that you read it and hopefully enjoyed it.

March 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz N.

I love reading books first. I've always been fascinated with how they develop the book into a movie. The actors they pick, the scenes they cut, etc. I LOVE it!!

March 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna
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